Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Which I Present the Thanksgiving Play

So yeah, it's my annual literary gift to the world time. The VERY FIRST THING I ever wrote was a 5 act Thanksgiving play. Yes, 'tis true. 2nd Grade. I got my friends to perform it with me. We played multiple roles. The Pilgrims came from Holland. (this is actually historically accurate, although why I knew this is a HUGE mystery.) Mostly they were concerned about washing their clothes. I don't know why. They just were, okay? 


READ ON AND SEE HOW I WAS DESTINED FOR AUTHORIAL GREATNESS!! This is where the magic began, folks. A 7 year old playing with 5 act structure!
*please note that the original is in brown crayon. I have typed it here for your ease of reading*

Scene 1

Mary: Oh, we hardly have enough food to last us on the whole trip to Virginia, Sue.
Sue: I know it, Mary, but we will soon be there. We will have good crops and maybe the people there will show us how to make our homes snug inside.
Julie: Sue, we are near to shore now.
Sue: But Julie, all I see is trees and grass and how cold it is out.

Scene 2
Sue: The men are going down on the new land now, Mary.
Mary: But look, what is on the land, Sue?
Sue: Maybe the Indians are going to welcome us.
Julie: I certainly hope they're not angry at us, Sue.
Mary: Julie, listen to what the Captain is saying. All women go to shore.

Scene 3

Julie: Now we are on land, Mary and we must wash our clothes.
Joe: Hey, Jack!
Jack: Yes, Joe, those Indians are pretty friendly!
Joe: Well, let's start building and cutting down trees, Jack. Jack! I've made friends with some Indians.

Scene 4

Sue: We're certainly having a cold winter, Mary.
Mary: And a hard time finding food, too.
Julie: We are having so much snow this winter.

Scene 5

Mary: Now that the winter is over we shall have to thank God by having a feast.
Julie: We shall invite some Indians to share it with us.
Mary; When we are done, some of us shall go back home.
Sue: now we shall start our feast. The turkey is good and the cranberries are delicious.
Julie: Now that we are done, we shall say goodbye to some of us.
Mary: They shall go back to Holland.

All: Good bye. Good bye.

Monday, November 17, 2014

In Which I List 5 Ways to Improve Education

Mostly, I use this blog to post about writing, authors, the writing life, publishing, and the like. I tell you about my own journey through all that and I hope you celebrate it with me.

Today, I want to talk about education. About school reform. About teaching English. It’s been on my mind these days, in part because I’ve done some subbing at my old school, including a two week stint for a colleague whose daughter had a very serious surgery. And once you’re back in the groove, it sticks with you. I may not be in the trenches every day, but I’m back there regularly enough.

Want to make our educational system better? I mean, do you really?

1. Hire teachers who are truly experts in their fields. The ones who can teach their subject matter without the teacher’s guide that comes with the textbook. The ones who are passionate and in love with their subject matter and widely read. Yes, teachers teach children. But they have to teach them SOMETHING. And if you can only function with guides and pre-canned Pearson materials, then you are not a master teacher. You’re just not. This means that when you interview a candidate to teach, say, Junior English, sit her/him down without access to the Internet and ask her to write a sample lesson for how to teach, say, The Great Gatsby. If she can’t do it, don’t hire her. If he/she can teach math but not explain the 'why', don't hire him. If she’s graduated with an English degree and does not have a command of the basics, don’t hire her. Or him. Similarly, if he/she knows only the canon classics and is not keeping up with the best of what's being written now, the gloriously diverse world of contemporary literature, that's a problem, too. Yeah, that's lot, I know! But what teachers know, the depth and breadth of their education, really does matter. Put only the best and the brightest in classrooms with our students.

2     2. Commit to how many students TOTAL is a workable load for a teacher to do a good job. English teachers at the high school where I taught full time until recently, now teach an average total of about 180 students each. Yes, you read that correctly. 6 classes of well over 30. Just do the math. If each student wrote one essay per week (and I’m not counting quizzes, tests and other written assessments, much less lesson planning and reading and everything else), and the teacher spent just five minutes per student grading/assessing progress, the total for that ONE assignment with 180 students would be 15 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. 15 hours. The average teacher has at maximum, 40 free minutes a day during the work day to grade/plan without meetings, paperwork, duty. So yes, about 3 hours a week. If they’re lucky. So the grading gets done in the evenings and on the weekends. Which is fine. I mean, most editors I now work with do their editing at home, too. But 180 students means that the teachers who are doing the best of jobs are burning out fast. They are working every night and 8-10 hours plus on the weekends, sometimes taking sick days to grade all day. They are not filling the well with life experience that will make them better teachers because they are never, ever done. And that’s just for ONE assignment. 100 students per secondary teacher should be the max. If it’s not, your school ISN’T doing its best job for its community.

3. Accept that collaborative learning is not always the best type of classroom structure. Understand that it works once material has been taught by the teacher. But zero plus zero equals zero, you know? Which means that divvying up chapters to have students read and then each group ‘teaches’ the material to the class, but the entire class does not actually read all the material, is actually quite often LAZY TEACHING. It’s the kind of thing that you save for those days when you’re sick or hungover (yes, it happens) or worried about an ailing parent or your own kids or whatever. It is NOT creative, although it may look like it is on the surface. It is not productive. It really isn’t. Calling teachers facilitators falls under the same category. Yes, it really does. My best teachers knew more than I did. A lot more. And they found creative and interesting ways to present that information to me. They did not rely on me to find it all myself, although they encouraged me to search and think and question. Often they simply lectured and I took copious notes, but not verbatim ones, thus ensuring that I was actually transferring that material to my brain in a way that worked for me. Don’t mistake the glitter for the substance. It’s easy to do. Trust me on this.

 4. Mentor newer teachers with more seasoned staff members. Make sure they know how to assess written assignments consistently. Make sure they’re not drowning in the work. Be a shoulder to lean on and a voice of reason in the academic wilderness. Remind them that they must teach the students that they’re given, find delight in these unique human beings who they have been given the privilege of educating. They should learn with them and laugh with them and cry with them and LISTEN to them. Remind them that some days, nothing they do will be enough. On those days, maybe all they can do is smile at this kid who is doing all the wrong things, whose issues won’t be fixed by you, not then or maybe not ever, and treat him/her with respect. Even when it’s almost impossible to do so. Even when your kindness will be perceived as weakness. And trust me, sometimes it will. Do not become too jaded, you must tell them. Keep your sense of humor and wonder at the human condition. Do this all year long, not just the first week.

5. And if you’re a parent, do your job, too. Instill a love of learning in your children. Encourage them. Read to them. Read with them. Don’t ever tell them that school is just a game. Be their advocates. Discuss world events. Tell your children that learning is a lifelong journey. It has value. Information is powerful. Turn off the screens at night. Talk. Explore. Do this even if you are exhausted or broke or sad or struggling to keep afloat. Even if your child is difficult. Even if life is falling on your head.  Know your child’s learning style, but don’t make it a crutch. Sometimes failure is okay. It really is. If your child never fails, he may not be stretching far enough. Tenacity is a good thing, too. In fact, it’s a very good thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Five Years

Hanging out at Houston Community college
Been doing some events-- Had a lovely time speaking to the reading club at Houston Community College.
And then last Friday, I spent the day at the John Cooper School Signature Series as a local guest author. Keynote was given my the delightful Tyler Florence of Food Network fame, who was quite gracious about photo ops, as you can see here!
At the John Cooper School Signature Series
And it's Tyler Florence!
I'd participated in this event back in '09, when DREAMING ANASTASIA was first out, so it was fun to be back now as book 6 is ready to arrive. And humbling and also fun to have various people come up to me, saying how that's where they first met me and started following my career and reading my books. So much has happened--both professionally and personally-- since then it's kind of crazy, really. Just five years, but holy cow! Books (two more in the DREAMING trilogy, then two SWEET DEAD LIFE books, and now FINDING PARIS in April 2015 and then IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS in 2016) and travel and teaching and then deciding to quit teaching full time and building this career… And as many of you know, a scary battle with thyroid cancer that began just as things were taking off. (MD Anderson declared me cancer free in 2013. I hope to stay that way.)

It hasn't always been smooth. In fact, quite often it has not. It's been a wild ride of revolving editors and promises both kept and unkept and amazing mentors who lift me up every single day, and the total thrill of what is truly an entire new world of people and ideas. I know I've found my tribe and I know that makes me lucky beyond words.

Still, I think I'm just one who is destined to work a bit longer and harder. Some days I angst over not sitting at the cool kids' table. Maybe I never will. Most days I get over my bad self and just do the work and enjoy the ride. No good comes in this profession from playing the comparison game.

I've realized along the way that somehow I was writing about all that in the white space between the words in all my stories: about what it means to be human--the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.

And for this I am profoundly grateful--particularly to all of you who buy my books and read my words and love my characters as I do. Even on the days when the words aren't coming easily.

And so!

You guys, FINDING PARIS is up on Edelweiss now, which means that people are requesting it (and YOU can request it!) and if Harper Collins says yes, then you get an early read before it arrives from Balzer and Bray in April! This is of course, both thrilling and nerve wracking -- as it always is.

 People are reading Leo and Max and Paris's story. It is out in the world and no longer mine and I am writing away on other things. This book that I love with all my heart, this story of how far you'd go to protect someone you love, about terrible secrets and what they do to us, about love and loss and very broken families. And road trips and Vegas and LA--both places where people flock to have their dreams come true. It's out there for you now, dear readers, at least in its galley form. It's dark and twisty, and it's my first contemporary without a paranormal element. *shivers with excitement.*

And I've got some really really awesomely cool swag in the works for those who pre-order. Stay tuned for that soon!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Stuff People Say to Authors

So when you become a published author, you discover that people say stuff to you. And while much of it is wonderful and supportive or just curious or whatever, some of it is just, well boggling.

In no particular order:

1. How many copies have you sold?
(answer: I have no idea. I don't sell the books out of the trunk of my car. I do get royalty statements and those give me the specifics, and I can in fact ask my agent and editors but that's not what this question means. This question presumes that I have a running tally in my head.)

2. What do you do all day?
(answer: I sit in dirty yoga pants and type. Sometimes I stare out the window. Then I type some more. I am not sure if this is what you want to hear.)

3. Are your books like Harry Potter/Twilight/The Hunger Games/Fault in Our Stars?
(answer: No. And yes. And no.)

4. How much do you make?
(answer: Do I ask your salary? Perhaps you are really asking how authors get paid. In that case, the answer is that we make an advance when we sell the book and we get half of that on signing the contract and half on completion. And when we earn out that advance through sales -- which is figured, more or less, on the royalty percentage-- we get royalties while the book is in print. If our publisher sells  our books at deep enough discount, this may occur only after a trillion books are sold.)

5. That seems like a lot of work. Why do you want to work so hard? (asked after asking me "How's the writing going?)
(Answer: Seriously? What kind of rain on my joy question is that? Begone with you. Nothing worth having comes without work. I LOVE what I do. It's the best kind of work. People PAY ME for making up stories. And yes, I'm neurotic some days, but seriously! I get paid for making stuff up.)

6. I'm going to write a book when I get the time.
(response: No you're not.)

7. Does anyone read anymore? There aren't even bookstores anymore, are there?
(answer: Yes. Yes they do. Lots of them. And did you know that there's been a revival of indie bookstores -- amazing places that love books and can't wait to put them in the hands of readers? In fact the indie book stores are doing better than ever.)

8. Still writing YA? Do you think you'll ever write an adult book?
(answer: So should I ask my child's pediatrician when she'll start treating adults?)

9. Would I like your books?
(Answer: I hope so. Sure. Why did you ask me that?)